Wednesday, March 18, 2015

“We Would See Jesus” John 12:20-33

New Testament Lesson                                                                John 12:20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

          Pulpits are interesting parts of the church architecture.

From time to time I get an invitation to visit a different church to be their guest preacher.  Whenever I preach in a church I haven’t been to before, I am always anxious to stand behind the pulpit to get a feel for it.  I want to stand there and look out at the still empty pews and imagine how I will be making eye contact with the people.  I want to hold the pulpit to see how it feels.  Most of all, however, I want to sneak a peek inside the pulpit – just to see what’s back there.

          A lot of you have never looked behind the pulpit, but there are a couple of shelves in most pulpits, and you often find unusual sorts of odds and ends back there.

          Let me see, I sometimes have hay fever, so I have a box of Kleenex back here.  A couple of hymnbooks.  A Bible.  Taped to the side of the pulpit are a couple of extra batteries – that’s in case my portable microphone runs out of juice in the middle of the sermon.  Well, as pulpits go, this one is rather tame.  

          I can remember preaching in one church and inside the back of the pulpit was a fire extinguisher.  One can only wonder what kind of fire and brimstone preaching would make it necessary to have a fire extinguisher behind the pulpit.

          I can remember visiting another church and finding, of all things, a telephone.  Throughout the sermon my mind kept wondering, “What do I do if it rings?  Stop preaching and answer it? Ignore it?”

          Behind the pulpit in the chapel at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, there is a small sign.  It is a brass plate with an inscription, quoting the New Testament lesson for today.

          “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

          Of course, seminaries have changed a great deal in the past several decades since that chapel was built, and the last time I was there, someone had scotched taped an appendix to that quote, so that the sign now read, “Sir, or madam, we would see Jesus.”

          The reason someone put that sign behind the pulpit in the first place is to encourage the new preachers being trained at the seminary not to proclaim themselves, but to proclaim Jesus Christ.  Every sermon ought to enable people to see Jesus more clearly.

          As a minister, I am the first to admit that sometimes I am not able to do this.  No minister is able to perfectly proclaim Jesus ALL of the time.  We’re all human.  Sometimes the sermons we preach simply seem to cloud the issue, rather than to clarify Jesus – to obscure rather than to proclaim Jesus.
          I have a friend who, in her early years of ministry, did volunteer work as a chaplain at a nursing home.  One day she was invited to conduct a Sunday morning service at the nursing home – an invitation which she accepted gladly.  She threw herself into the task with all of her energy.  She thought very highly of the people who lived at the nursing home and she wanted to deliver – not just a sermon – but a great sermon.  So she worked and worked on it, filled the trash can with rejected thoughts, until finally she had IT.

          The only trouble with IT is that it was the kind of sermon that only a recent graduate of the seminary would understand.  It had lots of references to Greek and Hebrew in which the thighbone of Justification is connected to the hipbone of ecclesiology.

          On the day when she delivered the sermon, the residents of the nursing home gathered in the activity room.  Some were wheeled in.  Others used walkers.   A few had I.V. needles in their arms.  Nurses gathered around in the back to attend the service.

          Now, one of the gifts of old age is that you often take the freedom to say the truth, no matter what the truth is.  My friend was preaching her sophisticated, theologically artistic sermon, when all of a sudden one of the elderly residents started wheeling her wheelchair out of the activity room and headed back to her own room.  With each push of the wheel chair, the lady said very loudly, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”

          Later on, my friend was telling me about the experience and admitted to me that while she had tried to preach the greatest sermon of all time, she had failed to help them “see Jesus” – so that it had become nothing more than “blah, blah, blah.”  She had tried to preach a graduate level course in theology, but the people just wanted to see Jesus in a basic level of truth.

          There is something about the Gospel that is on one hand very complex.  Whole libraries of books have been written in which scholars try to unravel the mysteries of God.  You want to get to know Jesus?  You want to see Jesus?  There is an avalanche of material on the subject.

          Understanding the Trinity.  Understanding the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Comprehending fully the meaning of bread broken at the Table and wine shared in the cup.  Our faith is full of complexities.  We can’t understand them all.

          And we can’t even begin to, until we first “see Jesus.”

          There are times when we have theological questions that simply cannot be answered – not completely.

          From “how can Jesus be fully human and fully God” to “why do bad things happen to good people.”

          Those are difficult theological questions.

          And until you first “see Jesus” any answer you give is simply going to be meaningless, “blah, blah, blah.”

          I did a funeral a few years ago.  Now every funeral has tragedy about it, but you know what I mean when I say that some are more tragic than others.  When Grandma dies at age 99, that’s sad, but when a child dies at age 5, the tragedy is magnified.

          In this particular funeral, a woman had an argument with her boyfriend.  He killed her in a fit of rage, and then committed suicide.

          I did the funeral for the woman, who had very rarely attended church. 

          After her funeral, the family was filled with grief. 

          They tried to seek comfort in God, but they didn’t know God.

          They had all these strange theological ideas.

          They thought the woman would go to heaven – not because God loved her and had mercy on her, but because God owed it to her because he’d made mistake and had taken her life too early.

          One of the family members was pregnant at the time of the funeral and the family thought this child would be the reincarnation of the dead woman.  As one of them put it, when you die, you get the next available new body.

          I guess for them death was kind of like trading cars.

          Another family member believed that when the woman died she became an angel and walked the earth watching over people.  That theology about angels doesn’t come from the Bible, but from the old TV series, “Highway to Heaven.”

          At one point, one of them asked me – and they asked me this because I was the trained and paid theologian in the group – “Why did God let this happen?”

          That is a good question.

          But it is a difficult question.

          And you can’t begin to understand that issue until you have done a lot of ground work. 

          These people, who came to church Christmas and Easter only, had no basic understanding of God.  They were asking a doctoral level question, but all they had at that point was a preschool level of understanding God.

          You can’t jump from preschool to doctoral level work just like that!

          If you want to understand calculus, at some point you have to first pass 3rd grade arithmetic. 

          I looked at these people and thought, “These people haven’t seen Jesus yet.  And anything I say to them is going to be nothing but ‘blah, blah, blah.’”

          The Christian faith is like an archeological dig.  You look at the surface and you can learn a lot.  You brush away the dust, and then you can learn even more.   You dig deeper, you learn more.  You dig deeper and deeper and deeper, and there is more and more to discover.

          But you have to start at the top.  Start with the basics.  You can’t understand God and the complexities of the faith unless you first start with the most basic.

          “Sir, we would see Jesus,” is a statement that in John’s Gospel means more than simply catching a glimpse of a celebrity who is performing miracles.

          It means that you really want to get to know and believe in Jesus.

          Our New Testament lesson comes from the Gospel of John.  One of the dynamics of John is that “to see” is more than simply to see something with your eyes.  For John, “to see” is “to believe.”

          We see this early on in the first chapter of John.  Jesus is gathering his disciples and one of them is Philip – Philip, the one who shows up in the Gospel lesson for today.

          In chapter one, Jesus calls Philip, and Philip goes to find his friend,  Nathanael.  He tells him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."

          Nathanael is not impressed.  "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.

Philip doesn’t argue.  He simply says "Come and --  see."

          Jesus meets a woman at a well.  There is a classic conversation between the two and the woman and Jesus are on completely different wavelengths.  Jesus talks about how he is the “living water.”  The woman says, “where’s your bucket?  Where you get this water?”
In the end, she comes to believe that this is Christ – the Messiah.  And John’s Gospel says (John 4:28-29), “ 

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.’”

In chapter nine there is a wonderful story about a man born blind.  Jesus heals him.  Afterwards there is a long investigation.  Was this man healed?  Was this man really born blind?  The man who was healed finally gets frustrated with this whole process and says that there is a lot he doesn’t know – but he knows one thing:  “I was blind, but now I see.” (John 9:25)  Amazing Grace!
And he is not simply talking about how he can now see people and trees and buildings.  He can see truth.

          Even the disciples use this word “seeing” in terms of “believing.”
Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Thomas is told about the Resurrection.  The other disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But Thomas is not impressed.  He said to them that he had to see the nail marks in his hands in order to believe.

In the Gospel of John, “seeing” means more than simply looking at something.  It is believing.  It’s understanding the faith.

In our New Testament lesson, we read about how there were some “Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’”

They don’t want to learn ABOUT Jesus.

They want to see him. 

They want to believe in him.

They want to know him.

In response, Jesus spoke to them and said these things…

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. ‘Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!’”

It is a rather typical kind of response that Jesus gives in the Gospel of John.  Typical because it is complicated.  John loves complicated dialogue.  But brush away the dust and look deeper at this long answer, and Jesus is simply saying, “The hour has come.  I’m about to die.  But I will be resurrected.  Follow me.”

          It’s hard to make sense out of life.
It’s hard to understand God.
Life is full of doctoral level questions. 

And until you see Jesus,
and believe in him,
accepting his death and resurrection,
nothing in life will make sense. 

Until you start with that basic level – believing Jesus, everything else will be nothing more than “blah, blah, blah.”
Have you seen Jesus?
          Have you really seen, and believed?
Have you accepted him as Lord?
Or is everything in your life still just blah, blah, blah?

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.